A Prophetic Warning: An Alternative View on The Social Dilemma

Last month’s newsletter included five articles offering perspectives on the Netflix Documentary Social Dilemma. Here is an additional response from my perspective: I found the documentary informative, compelling, and effective. It set out to warn of the dangers of algorithmic-driven social media and for that aim, it hit the mark. In this piece, I want to address some of the criticism brought up in two of the articles. I hope this will continue to spur dialogue on this matter as we seek to reform technology through the lens of faith.

Recapping Last Month’s Arguments

In my fellow Founding Member Bruce Baker’s view, the primary problem with the documentary is that the makers failed to account for sin in their assessment. He points to their dumbstruck and at times speechless response to the question “what is the problem?” In his view, because they lacked a robust mental framework of evil, they were surprised that social media would lead to harmful effects. Bruce points us to his recent paper that outlines his thesis in detail, namely that awareness of sin serves as a potent guardrail against self-serving idealism which is often rampant in Silicon Valley.

The paper is well worth a read.  Bruce builds a robust framework to help us understand what went wrong in the big tech hacker mentality. Drawing from multiple theological perspectives, he dares to re-introduce the unsexy topic of sin into the fore. He goes on to offer practical steps that business leaders can take, including the value of listening to prophetic voices. In my view, though, a prophetic voice was exactly the role The Social Dilemma was playing.  So I would say it actually affirms Bruce’s advice.

In the other article, Taylor Barkley decried the seemingly overly negative tone of the documentary. In his view, the documentary was one-sided and fraught with faulty evidence. He goes on to say that the documentary misses the mark in pointing to the social media profit model. Like Bruce, Taylor wants to argue that the central problem is sin. He also challenges the film’s assertion that social media is responsible for the increase in suicide rates among teens citing that studies in this matter are inconclusive.

Taylor’s critique of the film’s inordinate use of fear is warranted. Social media has brought benefits to many and cannot be seen as the only source of the problem. A more balanced view could have offered hope and empowerment for the viewer. Yet, I would argue that the documentary makers’ focus on the problem serves as an important alarm for us to reflect on our social media usage. In my view, the documentary’s negative tone is a narrative device to drive home the point that social media under the current advertiser-funded model is deeply flawed and must change. Isn’t that maybe the first step in recognizing structural sin?

 

My Perspective

Let me start by saying that simply stating that the source of the problem is sin does little to help us find solutions. More concerning to me is how this point is made. If people of faith like us would like to be heard in the public square, it self-defeating to turn to a secular world from a high-minded pulpit acting like they are stupid for not seeing the obvious. Honestly, if I was not a person of faith, rather than lead me to repentance, the message stated this way would more likely cause me to ignore it than hear it.

Certainly, a healthy dose of skepticism about humanity is warranted. Our many religious traditions, Christianity included, attest to our tendency to mess things up. There is a point to be made that a naïve type of optimism can lead to disaster. Wisdom, history, and religion all have repeatedly made this point. Just like any self-contained group, Silicon Valley’s elite suffers from colossal blind spots only outsiders can shed a light on. However, we can be more effective by first acknowledging our own. As these last years have shown, we Christians have missed some pretty glaring blind spots ourselves. Therefore, we should follow Bruce’s advice in attending first to humility, starting with ourselves.

Social Dilemma was not perfect and it did not get everything right. Yet, I must say that it did impact me in positive ways.

First, it forced me to stop and re-think my social media addictive habits. Even as a person that builds algorithms for a living, seeing them enacted by actors was a powerful image. It was also a haunting warning.

Second, it correctly pointed out the grave downsides of the advertiser-funded data insights model. One of the most memorable phrases of the film was “if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.” Point well taken. We have grown deceptively accustomed to the idea that social media is free but the cost has been our privacy. It is time we take it back.

No, I did not follow the advice of one of the speakers in the film that calls all of us to leave social media altogether. I do believe in its power for good and see it as a tool for networking, ministering, and even inspiration. Of course, sometimes it is an addictive distraction that I fall prey to as well. Yet abandoning it, in my view, is not the solution.

As a parent, I do want to be very deliberate about how to allow my children to use it. The research is new but I don’t take the correlation between the rise of depression rates in teens and the advent of mobile phones lightly. Even if not conclusive, that is a warning sign every parent should heed. We need to equip our children to be wise stewards of their social media habits. Early exposure to it can have devastating effects. We need to strengthen their experience in the offline world of flesh and blood before they can fully immerse themselves in the digital world of data and algorithms.

For these reasons, I mostly celebrate the prophetic message of The Social Dilemma. It aligns with my Christian belief that technology should be about human flourishing which ultimately brings glory to our Creator. Anything that denigrates us as human beings and society must be exposed and addressed. Yes, it does fall short of providing lasting solutions but it also fosters dialogue on this matter. The biggest danger of technology is its tendency to fade in the background, undetected, and unchallenged. That is when we most need to expose its ills. The first step to be rid of its structural sins is to name them clearly and bring them to the open in the best ways and tones possible.

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